The Socio-Legal Lab: Beyond methods

Workshop report by Lisa Hahn and Siddharth de Souza

On the 21st and 22nd of April 2018, the Socio-Legal Lab, a student led collaborative group, was launched to provide a space for graduate students who would like to apply socio-legal methods in their dissertation projects but face theoretical/methodological challenges in doing so. The workshop, which was supported by the Law and Society Institute Berlin (LSI) and the Berliner Arbeitskreis Rechtswirklichkeit (BAR), was attended by over 20 PhD and Post Doc students from different parts of Germany including Berlin, Bielefeld, Leipzig and Halle, with research projects in law, anthropology, history and sociology.

Our aim: Understanding methodology in action

The aim of the kick-off weekend was to work out jointly an overview of classic and contemporary approaches to socio-legal research, introduce empirical methods of collecting and analyzing data, and explore best-practices for socio-legal research. In doing so, the workshop began with participants being asked to use ‘mind maps’ to unpack questions and points of interest that represent major debates in the field: „What is your understanding of the relationship between law and society? Which socio-legal questions animate your work? What are the questions/ambiguities that you want to know more about?“ The result was a broad variety of themes ranging from discussions on different socio-legal methods to questions about the structure of law and society, its nature and its limits. Participants continued to develop these leitmotifs throughout the workshop.

Program: Literature, Inputs, Interaction

One of the ambitions of the Socio-Legal Lab was to experiment with different formats, in order to allow for varying types of engagements among the participants. With this in mind, the sessions were organized in form of literature review discussions, presentations by guest academics and participants and interactive activities.

Underlying methodological assumptions

The first literature review session involved participants presenting renowned texts including a text by Reza Banakar covering current debates on terminology and approaches when studying the interconnections between law and society, texts by Roger Cotterrell and David Nelken on the relationship between ‘the social’ and law, and a text by Fernanda Pirie discussing anthropological approaches to law. The discussions allowed researchers to critically reflect on broad questions of the nature of law, the challenges of bottom-up approaches such as grounded theory, the methodological consequences of pluralism, as well as the importance of culture when discussing the implications of building a context-dependent project.

The messiness of methodology in action

For the second literature review session we invited researchers to reflect upon challenges they had encountered during their field-work and to share anecdotes from previous research experiences. Having read interviews with authors of socio-legal classics such as Stewart Macaulay and Hazel Genn, in which they reveal the serendipity and messiness of methodology in action, we found a general consensus regarding insecurity over what method to use. This feeling, termed the ‘Methodological Anxiety Syndrome’ (MAS) by Halliday & Schmidt (2009: pp. 2)[1], is described as something that everyone doing research suffers at one point or another. During the discussion it became apparent that the participants ranging from PhD students to experienced researchers from various disciplinary backgrounds could possibly serve as the community of support required to overcome these methodological challenges.

Collecting data

Another remedy to the MAS for many participants was the input provided by three experts who presented different empirical methods of collecting and evaluating data.

A bottom-up approach of collecting data was discussed through a presentation given by Maria Seitz on qualitative interviews. She gave a comprehensive overview on the theoretical background as well as the various steps of constructing, conducting, analyzing and interpreting interviews. On a very practical level, she further discussed techniques of interviewing and answered questions from participants regarding the choice of interview partners and how best to phrase questions.

Dr. Larissa Vetters presented ethnography as an approach to understanding systems of meanings embedded in social practices by using a bundle of methods. After giving an overview of the different traditions of ethnography and legal anthropology, she argued that being aware of the tradition one is following and its respective underlying assumptions helps to reflect on the choice of different ethnographic methods.

Focusing on quantitative methods, Dr. Jens Frankenreiter introduced the core concepts of Empirical Legal Studies (ELS). He emphasized that ELS promises a sense of objectivity and requires a sound operationalization of the research question. He also introduced the application of empirical techniques through his own research analyzing the neutrality and political leanings of judges of the European Court of Human Rights.

The three input-presentations illustrated the different objectives that guide qualitative and quantitative research. While ELS requires a very narrow question but tries to explain large effects, qualitative research works the other way around: Starting with a very broad idea of the cognitive processes of making sense of the world, the aim is to understand the specific life-world of the research subject and answer questions in that very specific context. Methodologically, this in contrast to the linear design of quantitative research, and can require a circular design that entails moving back and forth between conducting and analyzing data.

Breaking the boundaries of textual thinking

With a need to encourage thinking outside the more familiar textual constructs of research projects, participants were invited to engage in a few interactive sessions. Siddharth de Souza conducted a model-building session where participants were asked to think about aspects of their research and visualize them by building physical models of their ideas using LEGO. The purpose of this exercise was to introduce different mediums through which participants could build, communicate and reflect upon their research.

Thereafter, Lisa Hahn conducted an interview simulation that involved participants performing the roles of the interviewee and the interviewer. The participants were then asked to reflect on their experiences during the simulation.

On the second day of the workshop weekend, participants presented the socio-legal method central to their research using the Pecha Kucha method that emphasizes brevity and concise delivery of ideas often using only pictures.

Core points of discussion

Despite the diverse disciplinary backgrounds, research interests and methods applied, recurring themes of discussion arose throughout the workshop and led to a constant reflection of underlying assumptions guiding the participants’ own research.

„Isn’t the distinction of law and society itself the problem?“

Not surprisingly, questions about the nature of law, society and their relationship were subject to intense discussions. The participants had different takes on answering this question including that “law and society is not the same as law in society” and that „law always goes behind society“. One participant noted a common underlying feeling, when phrasing a research question, regarding whether this is a legal problem one has to ask about? I can’t escape the law but I wish I could.”

„Is there a methodological solution to the tension between law and social sciences?“

Inextricably linked to the first question were discussions on the relationship between law and social sciences as disciplines. One participant observed a tension between the two disciplines and raised the question whether the solution could be a methodological one. Further connected to the question of the limits of law is the question of the limits of disciplinary knowledge production. One participant broke it down to a question of community: „Who are you talking to and what are the different forms of knowledge formation/production? There we reach limits.“

Interestingly, the classic question of „the gap“ between law in the books and law in action was not a central point of discussion but rather something most participants assumed existed. This, however, makes socio-legal research more demanding: „You cannot just stop at the gap. The interesting question is what happens inside.“

„Do we not just strip off normativity?“

In the discussions on empirical underpinnings of research, a frequent refrain among the participants were amongst others the normative implications of research, and whether placing emphasis on the normative, was essential as a starting point, particularly for those trained as lawyers but looking to be engaged in socio-legal research.

„Can qualitative research never be representative?“

A recurring question among participants concerned the objectivity and subjectivity of different methodological solutions, particularly of the representative nature of qualitative research. One solution to the methodological conundrum was to focus on ‘meaningfulness’ and to unpack what is meaningful to the different social parties involved in the research.

Further doubts were raised with respect to the quantitative methods‘ promise of objectivity, mainly by those researchers trained in qualitative methods. One participant tried to link the discussion to earlier debates on normativity by drawing an interesting comparison: „Isn’t statistics similar to doctrinal reasoning and normativity? From a critical point of view, one could ask whether statistics is not just another way for legal scholars to keep the authority over knowledge production on law.“

After all: Why socio-legal research?

During the first brainstorming, the question of „why“ to study law with a socio-legal approach produced slight tensions between the disciplines. When asking about the added value of a social sciences perspective on law, some participants saw it as a way to overcome the limits of doctrinal approaches to law. Social scientists, on the other hand, highlighted the potential of socio-legal methods to reveal the ambivalent dimensions of law as an instrument of power, patriarchy and ex- rather than inclusion. However, throughout the workshop, the different epistemes of law and social sciences and the initial tension resolved into a productive exchange that led researchers to examine their own disciplinary assumptions critically.

Follow-up

The workshop produced an encouraging response to creating a space for discussions on socio-legal research by bringing together graduate students for a shared reflection on the reasons for and challenges of engaging in empirical research at the intersection of law and society. A follow-up event with a focus on particular aspects of interests among the participants is planned for the beginning of the fall semester.

Lisa Hahn and Siddharth de Souza are co-conveners of the Socio-Legal Lab and PhD candidates at the Humboldt University of Berlin

[1] The title of this report is inspired by the book.

 


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